In 1964, the UN has launched a rocket to the Moon. When they arrive, they discover a Union Jack flag on the surface and a note mentioning Katherine Callender and claiming the Moon for Queen Victoria. The UN traces Katherine Callender to Dymchurch, Kent. She has died, but her husband Arnold Bedford is living in a nursing home. The staff will not let him watch reports of the moon-landing because it excites him. He is senile and believes he went to the moon.
In a flashback to 1899, Arnold Bedford (Edward Judd) lives at Cherry Cottage by a canal in Dymchurch. His fiancée Kate (Martha Hyer) drives up in a motorcar, to visit for the first time. He is worried about his rent being past due. They meet with a neighbor Joseph Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), an inventor who wants to buy the cottage, which Kate agrees to. In Cavor’s laboratory, he has developed a material called Cavorite, which will nullify the effects of gravity. He plans to travel to the Moon.
Cavor tells Bedford there are gold nuggets on the moon, to pique his interest. He has built a spherical spaceship which he keeps in the greenhouse. It is lined with green velvet and is equipped with electric lights. Just as Kate arrives, there is an explosion because Cavor’s assistant Gibbs (Erik Chitty) went to the pub instead of watching the boiler. He shows Kate the deep-sea diving suits to be worn on the Moon. The Cavorite is being processed. Kate brings gin and bitters, chickens, and an elephant gun for the trip.
Back at the cottage, she is summoned by the bailiff for selling what she does not in fact own—the cottage. Bedford and Cavor are just about to take off when she pounds on the sphere demanding to know why she is in trouble with the law, and they pull her in as the sphere launches. As the sphere rises into the heavens, they eat sardines. If you open a Cavorite blind the sphere moves in that direction because of the pull of gravity. They crash land on the Moon, the men put on diving suits, and Kate is placed in an air-tight compartment on the ship.
Exploring, Bedford and Cavor fall down a hole to find breathable air at the bottom. There is an insectoid race of Selenites living there. Out of fear, Bedford assaults and kills some. After escaping, they find that the sphere, with Kate inside, has been dragged into the underground city, as the Morlocks dragged the Time Machine.
They are attacked by a giant caterpillar-like Moon Bull, which the Selenites kill with their ray guns. They see the perpetual motion machine, powered by sunlight, which powers the city. The Selenites learn English, of course, and interrogate Cavor, Then he is interviewed by the Grand Lunar. Cavor thinks they want to exchange scientific knowledge, but Bedford believes the human race is on trial and tries to kill the Grand Lunar with his elephant gun. Cavor stops him and they make their escape.
Bedford finds the sphere and he and Kate take off, while Cavor volunteers to stay behind with the Selenites. The ship comes down off the coast of Zanzibar and the sphere sinks into the Indian Ocean. They swim ashore, but never learn what happened to Cavor. In the present, Bedford, the UN, and newspaper reporters watch the news from the Moon. The astronauts find the Selenites’ underground city deserted. The ruin begins to collapse and the astronauts retreat. Bedford thinks the Selenites caught cold from Cavor and died.
Harryhausen and screenwriter Nigel Kneale persuaded Charles Schneer to produce the period film. Lionel Jeffries was cast to give some humor, a little too much of it in my opinion. Kneale had the Selenites die because he knew that soon Man would reach the Moon and not find any Selenites. Edward Judd was cast because of his performance in The Day the Earth Caught Fire. Martha Hyer’s character was added later, when I suppose somebody realized they ought to have a woman in the movie. The UN spacesuits were used later in Doctor Who and the Star Wars Trilogy. The reviews were mixed, most critics thinking that Harryhausen’s creations—the spaceship and all the Lunar creatures--were better than the human story. The film was a box-office disappointment. Harryhausen thought there was too much comedy, Schneer that the public didn’t like the period setting. They didn’t work together for five years.
The story sticks fairly well to the original by Wells in 1901, except that there is no woman in the original and the movie totally ignores the Wellsian sociology in the story. Peter Finch has a small uncredited role as the Bailiff’s man. He was visiting the set and the actor didn’t show up. The UN astronauts speak Russian, but it’s actually Czech. The Selenites were played by Cockney street-kids. It was five years later when Man walked on the Moon. They found no Selenites. However, in a Doctor Who episode later, a message of God Save the Queen was found under the ice of the Martian polar cap and the Doctor went there to discover 19th Century British soldiers involved with the Ice Warriors. One might almost accuse the Doctor Who writers of stealing ideas.